Brazil's Unaffordable Homes.
Vanessa Barbara - JULY 30, 2014
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — I live in Mandaqui, a district six miles from downtown. The nearest subway station is roughly two miles away, or about 30 minutes by bus, since they’re slow and scarce. It’s not the best place to live if you don’t have a car. Even so, the average price per square foot here recently soared to $250. Real estate in prime areas of the city can now cost as much as $465 per square foot.
|Una vista de Nova Palestina.|
In the last six years, housing prices in São Paulo have increased by 208 percent, and the cost of rent has increased 97.5 percent in the metro area. According to the website Numbeo, which compiles user-generated data, a 970-square-foot apartment here costs the equivalent of 16 years of an average family’s total income. By comparison, this cost-to-income ratio is eight in New York, 6.9 in Berlin and only three in Chicago. Someone making the minimum wage in Brazil ($325 a month) can afford to rent only a three-room shack in the crime-ridden Favela Paraisópolis ($280), leaving him practically nothing left over to live on.
Brazil is experiencing a severe housing shortage. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, one in three families lives in inadequate housing. The country has an estimated shortage of 5.8 million units, of which 90 percent is concentrated on lower-income families. According to research by the João Pinheiro Foundation, 442,710 households in São Paulo spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent. These families are in danger of joining 44,699 other households living in precarious conditions and 83,011 in which more than three family members are squeezed into the same bedroom — an overcrowding solution to a dead-end situation.
More and more, the poor are pushed away from the city and forced to live in the far suburbs. And more and more, those suburbs also expel them. In Capão Redondo, 14 miles from downtown, the average housing price increased 312 percent in the last five years.
It’s no wonder we’re the country of favelas, urban slums built by desperate people using poor materials such as cardboard and tin. They pop up in areas without basic infrastructure or sanitation, and are sometimes vulnerable to landslides, floods and fires.
In early 2009, the government took note and began a program called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life). The public-private partnership aimed to reduce this deficit by facilitating credit and financing construction.
But from the beginning, it favored families that earned three times the minimum wage or more. As of 2012, after the first and second stages of the program, only 40 to 45 percent of all contracts were assigned to the poorest families. The program appeared to be more about improving the economy than helping the poor. Many critics also complained about the quality of the 344-square-foot houses destined for the poorest, which were built in remote areas without adequate infrastructure.
Although the government has promised to correct those deficiencies in the third stage of the program, any reforms will most likely be hobbled by the influence of the housing industry. According to the investigative news website Publica, from 2002 to 2012 Brazil’s four biggest construction companies donated $215 million to the political campaigns of all major parties. In the last municipal elections in São Paulo, construction and real estate companies were responsible for 57 percent of donations. These companies have deep interests in sustaining the old urbanization model marked by segregation and inequality.
One of the strongest groups fighting these issues is Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto — the Homeless Workers Movement — which combines negotiation with the government and direct confrontation on housing issues. The group has 50,000 families enrolled as members nationwide and 20,000 in São Paulo, where, on a rainy Thursday just before the World Cup, it led 15,000 people in a protest against evictions and overspending on the event.
The organization also advocates the occupation of abandoned buildings or areas that are kept vacant by real estate companies (some of them bankrupt); the resistance of forced evictions; and the government expropriation of housing for, as written in our Constitution, “public necessity.” Its leaders also quote our Constitution when saying that “property shall observe its social function,” and that the economic order is “intended to ensure everyone a life with dignity, in accordance with the dictates of social justice.”
For many years, the Homeless Workers Movement has endured fierce opposition from the public and the news media. But in the last few months, it has amassed some important victories. A month before the World Cup, more than 2,000 families squatted in an area that had been abandoned for years, near the Itaquera stadium, one of nine occupations in São Paulo. (The biggest of them, Nova Palestina, has had roughly 8,000 families camped out since November.) In a matter of weeks, the protesters near Itaquera got the government to agree to build low-income housing on the site as an extension of the My House, My Life program.
The movement has also effected some changes in the program itself: It has persuaded the government to assign a greater share of the contracts to nonprofit organizations instead of private contractors, which could mean more autonomy and better houses in better neighborhoods. It has also stepped into the debate around the recently approved São Paulo City Plan, which will increase the regulation of land speculation and duplicate the number of Special Zones of Social Interest — areas devoted to low-income housing — in the city.
The group claims that adequate housing is a human right and shouldn’t be ruled by market logic alone. That argument is convincing, especially when you look at the numbers: There are more than six million vacant housing units in Brazil — more than enough to cover our shortage.
Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, edits the literary website A Hortaliça.